Sculptures grace Western Md. College Gift: Joe Brown was an athlete and artist who received an honorary doctorate from WMC 20 years ago. Now his works have been donated to the school.

October 11, 1997|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

The news came out of the blue in the mail: Western Maryland College would receive a gift from the estate of an internationally known sculptor upon whom it bestowed an honorary doctorate -- almost 20 years ago.

But that Ph.D was no token to Joe Brown, an athlete-artist who boxed his way out of a tough neighborhood in South Philadelphia, earned a degree in education at Temple University, took up sculpture while he was the Princeton University boxing coach and was a fine arts professor there for almost four decades.

Some "stuffed shirts" in the Princeton arts department at the time looked down on Brown's bachelor's degree, said Michael E. Bowman of New York, chairman of the Joe Brown Foundation.

"Joe was frankly very touched by the degree they gave him at Western Maryland. It really meant a lot to him," Bowman said.

Because Brown died in March 1985, there was shock on campus when in March 1996, a letter from Bowman arrived regarding "the possibility of the foundation making a gift of several valuable Joe Brown bronzes to Western Maryland."

No one was more surprised than the man who sponsored Brown's honorary doctorate in fine arts in 1978, Dr. H. Samuel Case, professor of exercise science and physical education.

Case was in the athletic department at the Johns Hopkins University in 1964 when Brown was doing two sculptures at the gymnasium -- a runner and a discus thrower. The friendship continued after Case joined the Western Maryland faculty.

"Then all of a sudden, this came up out of the blue," said Case, who traveled to Philadelphia last week to transport five of the larger sculptures.

Seventeen of Brown's pieces have arrived at the Westminster campus -- works in porcelain, bronze and plaster. They range from a small bust of Robert Frost to a 9-foot heroic sculpture "Dropped Antaeus," of a boxer named for the mythical giant who grew stronger every time he hit the ground.

Included are models for "The Tackle," one of four large sculptures Brown did on commission for Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, and "Oklahoma Ride," done for the Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla.

The gift includes an 8-inch bronze "Pieta, 1944 A.D.," inspired by Brown's experience with a young boxer, sacrificed in a bum-of-the-month bout with champion Joe Louis, who was cradled by a referee as he kept getting up after being knocked to the canvas. The work, denounced by some as sacrilegious, won an award and was widely imitated.

Some of these pieces have traveled to major art galleries, corporate headquarters, and one-man exhibits at Expo '67 in Montreal and the 29th Olympiad in Mexico City, Bowman said. The donation to Western Maryland is valued at about $300,000.

"The dollar figure is just insurance value," Donald W. Schumaker, associate director of public information. "These are priceless. There will never be another Joe Brown."

"We get some big bequests," he said, "but as far as prestige, this is one of the tops." The college plans an exhibit before deciding where to place the various works around campus.

More could be coming. Bowman said the foundation might give the college as many as 30 works.

JTC Bowman explained that the foundation members -- friends of Brown with full-time jobs -- tried for years to keep the collection together, then began to distribute the works last year. Some were single pieces, such as a bust of Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter en route to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Western Maryland was on their list from the beginning, he said, but "We were not going to give them this many -- just a few pieces in remembrance."

The more they learned, he said, the better they liked Western Maryland.

They were drawn first by the degree. "Here's Joe: He's absolutely unique, a former boxing coach who was loved by the president of Princeton University, who got him a Carnegie grant to open a studio, but then they had to put him somewhere. [To] the art department -- stuffed shirts -- he was an oddball this little guy from South Philly.

"So he never got a formal [advanced] degree -- that's why the degree from Western Maryland College meant so much."

Then, Bowman said, "We discovered that Joe boxed there with Temple. He got 11 stitches, but he won." In the 1930s, Western Maryland was a nationally ranked boxing power.

Brown, who had a football scholarship to Temple, was captain of its boxing team. He was a national contender as a light heavyweight and fought nine professional bouts under an alias before deciding to quit and bank his winnings for tuition toward a bachelor's degree in education in 1931.

So most important, said Bowman, the gift to the college reflects Brown's priority: education, which also brought him national honors.

President Robert H. Chambers said the college "is absolutely delighted. Since Professor Brown, of Princeton, was probably the leading sports sculptor in the United States, WMC is honored to have been included in his estate.

"We plan to make the 17 Brown sculptures a signature of Western Maryland."

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